Jessica Thompson is a GRAMMY-nominated mastering and restoration engineer, audio preservationist, educator, and current President of the San Francisco Chapter of the Recording Academy. She has worked on a slew of projects across many genres and decades, using almost every conceivable source material.
Here's our chat with Jessica:
Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?
Restoring and remastering Erroll Garner's The Complete Concert By The Sea is a highlight, not just because it was honored with a GRAMMY nomination but because I got to hear the original tapes and compare them to all the reissues of this remarkable live performance. Working with Barbara Dane on preserving her audio archive and then mastering Hot Jazz, Cool Blues & Hard-Hitting Songs with songs we discovered on those tapes - that was a total thrill. Also, the longtime relationship I've built with the label Awesome Tapes From Africa has been an honor and an education. I never tire of receiving a surprise package from Awesome Tapes containing an original cassette from the late 70s or early 80s with some utter gem of a record locked away on it.
How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on?
I'm a mastering and restoration engineer. Sometimes that means I get a folder of mixes, master them, and prepare the album for distribution. Sometimes that means I'm digging through dusty boxes of tapes, seeking to find some order and preserve someone's recorded legacy.
How did you get started in music/audio production/restoration?
Radio DJ to radio producer to grad school to lucky break landing an internship at a top mastering studio, followed by years of long hours, hard work, and lots of records working with my mentor Steve Rosenthal at the Magic Shop Studios in NYC. Did I mention the long hours and hard work?
Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?
I'd look to the business side of things to answer this one. I never wanted to run my own business or work for myself, but that's how this industry has evolved. I wish I had accepted this reality sooner and embraced being an independent contractor and building my own studio. I wish I'd had the foresight to see the value in owning one's own studio. (I'm getting there!)
Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?
I love a high end, well-maintained playback machine. I think of my ATR-102 as my own vintage hotrod. I know how it sounds, how it feels, how to anticipate when the tension is off or the alignment is not quite right. Since I do a lot of restoration work, I rely on headphones for super detailed listening, and the Audeze LCD-X headphones have been a game changer. The information about a recording I can discern from listening on those headphones helps me work quickly and effectively, whether dialing in low end during mastering or removing clicks and pops during a vinyl restoration project.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire to get where you are in their own careers?
There is no shortcut for ear training. You have to listen, listen, listen to everything, new recordings, old recordings, the same recording on different formats, and know that it takes years to hone your craft. Think of yourself as a craftsperson. Never stop listening, and never stop learning.
How long have you been working with headphones, and what inspired you to start including them in your workflow?
Since the beginning! Radio DJs, of course, use headphones while on the air. I used the Sony MDRs forever, and then switched to the BeyerDynamic DT 770s, which I still love for pleasure listening. I literally use headphones every day for restoration work and for QC during mastering.
Any additional comments or stories you want to share?
I once asked RZA from Wu Tang Clan how to spell his name.
How have your Audeze headphones affected your work? Can you tell us what you've been working on with them so far?
I wasn't even in the market for new headphones, but I borrowed a pair of the Audeze LCD-X headphones, and, within a few days, I could not imagine working without them. It felt like putting on glasses, but for my ears. I could hear nuance and clarity, especially in the low end. They quickly became an indispensable tool for my mastering and restoration work. One thing that surprises me is that they are NOT too heavy/uncomfortable to wear for long-ish stretches, even with glasses.
A few recent projects:
Mastered and restored several albums for the Octave Remastered series / Erroll Garner Jazz Project.
Nahawa Doumbia's Kanawa, Penny Penny's Yogo Yogo, and Hailu Mergia's Yene Mircha for Awesome Tapes From Africa.
Victoria Keddie's Apsides
Michele Mercure's Pictures of Echoes